Agriculture and suburbia find common ground


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Lyndsay Luff, 7, held out two salsa peppers as long as her hand. She smiled coyly and didn’t say a word, her eyes cast down at the first chilis she had ever picked. They sat loosely on her palms like miniature rolling pins.

A slim, bright-eyed woman stood beside her, nodding in approval. Just two years ago, Sue Myers and a smattering of other volunteers had settled on a one-acre slice of Upper St. Clair’s Gilfillan Farm, part of the Historical Society of Upper St. Clair’s 15-acre parcel of land in the heart of suburbia. The group was incorporated last September as Common Ground Community Agriculture, a sustainable farming and educational nonprofit that gives 90 percent of its outputs to food pantries around town.

Since the closure of Bedner Farm last year, it has been the only working farm in Upper St. Clair.

Ms. Myers wore hoop earrings, tall galoshes and a faded Boston Red Sox cap. She squinted at a row of musk melons that would be harvested that afternoon, bound — along with cabbage, lettuce, squash, zucchini and more — for free distribution in a food-deprived part of Mount Washington.

That morning, as with almost every morning, Ms. Myers arrived at the farm at 7 a.m. She and Carole Ortenzo, 57, an intern from Chatham University, started by checking the plants for bugs. From there, they proceeded to plant and weed, and instruct the volunteers who arrive every Tuesday and Thursday.

“This is a dream job,” Ms. Myers said. “Look at what I get to do every day.” Lyndsay and her 12-year-old brother, Brandon Luff, were sorting through green peppers in a wooden basket. Ms. Myers continued, “I get to watch kids pick peppers and taste food they’ve never tasted before.”

Before she became the full-time executive director of Common Ground’s entirely volunteer-run operation, Ms. Myers was a teacher. She worked both as an adjunct and a special-education assistant in different schools around the city, and it is clear that she hasn’t left the classroom far behind.

She glanced at Lyndsay and Brandon while she recounted this career switch. “This is my passion,” she said. “Teaching people about food.”

Thursdays are harvest days. This recent volunteer session (they run from 9 a.m. to noon) began with a tour of the farm’s historic grounds. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, Gilfillan has all the trappings of a complete 1800s farm, from a spring house to an outhouse, a chicken coop to a pig pen.

Today, the site is largely absent of animals, save for the two “fierce” barn cats and the monarch butterflies. Common Ground recently installed two nest boxes in the hopes of attracting barn owls. 

“I must ask that you don’t touch the cats,” Ms. Myers said as one brushed up against her legs.

Common Ground considered more urban locations before they decided on Gilfillan. The Historical Society of Upper St. Clair allows the organization to use the space free of charge, in exchange for integrating the group’s educational programming into the historical society’s own.

One of the components of this mission is an internship program in conjunction with Chatham’s food-studies master’s degree. This year’s intern, Ms. Ortenzo, is a former general surgeon for the Army who ran a personal-chef service before enrolling at Chatham two years ago.

Ms. Ortenzo has worked at the farm every Tuesday and Thursday this summer. A native of Penn Hills, she chose the internship because she wanted to move away from her theory-laden textbooks and do something hands-on.

People often ask if her experience as a surgeon helps her in cooking and farming. 

“Only when it comes to precision chopping,” she admitted. “I’m good at judging small distances, like when I’m sectioning a chicken or filleting a fish.”

The morning sun beat down on the farm as cars whizzed through Washington Road, just a few feet away from the Swiss chard plants. On a single acre of land nestled among townhouses and a Target store, agriculture and suburbia are finding a common ground. 

Learn more about Common Ground at growgathergive.org


Yanan Wang: ywang@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1964 or on Twitter @yananw.

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